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Branding in a Digital Age


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-10-15-2007
Volume 0
Issue 0

Build it and they will come. But how do you make them stay?

GOOD digital branding requires equal parts science, mysticism, and magic. Sound simple? In fact, it is. Good (even great) branding is not as difficult to achieve as it would seem if—and it's a big if—a few simple guidelines are followed.

First, let's note something: With a good brand, we understand not only what the product is and we know what it does, but we feel why it makes a difference.

Scott Reese

Good branding, then, is a reassuring sensation of trust: Trust that the product will work as promised; trust that it will continue to do so time and again; trust that other products by the same maker will behave similarly. People return to brands they trust and are often willing to pay a premium to guarantee a positive experience.

No brand can make up for a flawed product. Then again, no great product can succeed without good branding.


The digital environment offers pharma a unique opportunity, as well as a serious challenge: Statistics tell us people don't or won't instinctively go first to a pharmaceutical site for information (See "Pharma Sites Aren't Consumers' Top Source.")

Pharma Sites Are not Consumers Top Source

Typically, consumers distrust pharma's brand Web sites, assuming that such sites are merely sales vehicles. People will, however, visit a company's site when:

  • They are armed with a prescription from their doctor. They want to understand what the drug is, how it works, and what they can expect from taking it.

  • They have a specific health condition.

  • They are searching to understand the condition and its treatments.


With a compelling brand, audiences will stay and engage with the Web site. A good Web site should offer an online subculture—that is, an environment—where the audience can join, participate, and share.

The single defining feature of online versus other branding channels is this functionality: Digital branding enables your audiences to self-direct and customize their relationship with your brand.

Audiences can feel they are immersed in a larger community—similar people, facing similar consequences, experiencing similar emotions. The digital environment can be a space that offers:

  • The opportunity to dialog with experts

  • Lessons and suggestions for managing life with a given condition

  • CRM (customer relationship management) functions that would otherwise be impossible or prohibitively expensive outside the digital space

  • An environment of trust where nothing is forced—or, rather, nothing has to be forced.

This fundamental shift of power, from the information giver to the information consumer, goes a long way toward establishing the enduring trust.


If it's so simple, why is good branding often a point of contention? Much of the problem lies in misconceptions about branding:

A BRAND IS NOT A LOGO In reality, a logo is merely a visual representation. Color, photography, typeface, and copy play a part in reinforcing the experience. But they, too, are just tools used to create a visual association to a brand, a way of saying, "When you see this mark you know the product delivers certain expected returns, and you can count on them being there every time you have any contact with our brand. Similarily brand associations can be both positive and negative. If one has a bad experience with your brand, your logo will only serve to let them know exactly who it was that created it.

MARKETERS DO NOT CREATE THE BRAND Brand agencies and their clients succumb to this hubris when they begin to believe they alone control or are responsible for the brand. Brands are nurtured and cared for, but they are largely free-spirited things that can change on a dime. If there is a problem in branding right now, it is that brand managers sit in a room and try to decide what a brand should mean and then invest tremendous amounts of energy and effort to make their creation a reality.

A BRAND IS DEVELOPED ON ITS OWN Print, broadcast, point-of-sale, direct-to-consumer, and digital are not separate and mutually exclusive channels acting in isolation. Great branding is a continuum. Successful brands create integrated experiences where one channel feeds into and off of another. For one patient, offline advertising may get the story rolling, but the payoff may be delivered online. For another, online may provide the genesis of a relationship that is nurtured through CRM, which in turn cycles back to deeper, more personalized online experiences.


In many ways, partnership is the brand. The self-paced nature of digital functionality allows branders to nurture the partnership the old-fashioned way—over time.

Digital branding enables branders to build trust through information. We can position our products within an online culture through camaraderie, compassion, and communication.

The greatest advice is perhaps the oldest: Know your audiences...all of them. Learn how they communicate. Why they learn. How they learn. What their fears are. What they care about. Use focus groups, surveys, interviews, and tests. Listen to what the voices are telling you.


Patients are not the only ones who visit the Web sites. Often, it is a patient's loved ones and/or caretakers who are conducting the searches, particularly with graver diseases, like cancer.

A brand team should not lose sight that medical care often extends several levels beyond the patient. A good brand brings audiences together around what unites them: the illness.


Each disease or condition has a culture surrounding it, complete with expectations, fears, and emotions that shape the environment. A newly diagnosed cancer patient in her first round of chemotherapy has different needs than someone who is in her third year of treatment. Know these needs.

A true understanding of the culture of an illness allows a branding team to position brands into a preexisting environment where half (or more) of their work is already done.

The audience doesn't perceive itself to be visiting a pharmaceutical company's Web site, per se. Rather, they are entering an on-demand, digital world built around an illness where they can trust the information and learn what to expect, how to manage their lives, tips to cope, and ways to meet other patients like themselves.

This is a comforting place to be. An environment which is not so much manufactured as tapped into. In an online space, shielded by anonymity, visitors are free to speak honestly about their beliefs, their fears, and their experiences. Information should be given in a straight and easy manner, just as it would come from their doctor.

It is never too early to start a brand experience. The best time to establish a brand is when the audience doesn't need it, when they have yet to put up their guard.

Deliver valuable information. Make it feel natural, unobtrusive, and trustworthy. Once the audience is immersed, the challenge is to maximize the experience to build trust. People then will have come seeking information and ended up in a partnership.

Scott Reese is senior vice president, group creative director for Digitas Health. He can be reached at sreese@digitashealth.com

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